The subject of rider weight came into prominence in 2017, when a judge asked a rider at a UK show to leave his class as he thought she was riding a horse that was not suitable to carry her weight. This sparked a debate of ‘how heavy is too heavy?’ and whether or not there is an optimum rider:horse bodyweight ratio.
It has become an important welfare conversation, if not a challenging one, that needs to be had. As a collective, we must always be striving to know more about what we are asking our horses to do and this means we need scientific evidence, fact and objectivity. These measures are essential in a topic which is heavily weighted with human bias (pun intended).
Dr Sue Dyson (Head of Clinical Orthopeadics, Animal Health Trust) sought to do just that in her pilot study “the influence of rider to horse bodyweight ratios on equine gait and behaviour” In other words, how does a rider’s weight affect the way the horse can perform under saddle.
The results of these preliminary findings were released at the National Equine Forum on March 8th in London.
Here’s what they found:
How it was carried out
The gait and behavioural responses of 6 horses were examined when ridden by 4 riders of similar ability but different sizes.
All riders were weighed in their riding gear and categorized L (light) M (moderate) H (heavy) and VH (very heavy). Their body mass index (BMI) was also calculated.
Confused about BMI?
Weight ÷ height2 = healthy weight assessment tool
Each rider rode each horse in it’s normal tack and rode through a set pattern of exercises ‘comprising mainly trot and canter’.
Assessments made included:
- Horse behaviour
- Forces under the saddle
- Response to palpation of the back
- Alterations in back measurements in response to exercise
- Heart and respiratory rates
- Salivary cortisol levels
- Blink rate
What else you should know
Dr Sue Dyson has also developed an ethogram of 24 behavioural markers that may indicate pain or discomfort in a horse. Throughout each test, Dr Dyson was responsible for monitoring each horse for any of these markers. The ethogram denotes that if 8 markers are present at the same time, the horse is displaying discomfort. Prior to this study, it was confirmed that if 10 markers were present at the same time the test would be abandoned immediately. The same, naturally, was put into effect for any signs of lameness.
- All the riding tests for the H (heavy) and VH (very heavy) riders were abandoned due to temporary horse lameness and their ethogram scores being ‘significantly higher’.
- One test from the M (moderate) rider was abandoned*
- No tests from the L (light) rider were abandoned
*important to note here that the Moderate rider had a similar BMI to the heavy rider; both were classified as overweight, but only one test from the moderate rider was abandoned, signally that it was induced by Bodyweight specifically, rather than BMI.
Where saddle fit comes in
This study also raised the issue of rider height and saddle fit. Riders who could not maintain vertical alignment (shoulder/hip/heel) and loaded the back of the saddle more because the saddle did not accommodate their length of leg, found it harder to ride in balance. This can distort how their weight is distributed, affecting how the horse is able to perform.
Advisories from the Study
‘if the picture looks wrong, it probably is’
‘Your horse should be fit enough and strong enough, with a correctly fitted saddle. If you are not sure, ask an expert”
What you might hear
“Isn’t this just common sense?”
A lot of the feedback on the study has been ‘but isn’t this just common sense?’. The problem with common sense is that it is not handed out equally amongst everybody, and one person’s sensibilities will differ to another’s.
If common sense was a sturdy enough platform from which to make the right decision we would have no need for health and safety protocols or a ‘caution this is hot’ on takeaway coffee cups. Human nature demonstrates time and again that common sense is not a robust indicator that people will behave in a way that is in their best interests, or the best interests of others.
Wherever improvement needs to be made, we need change to be supported by evidence and fact. Education is also necessary so that everyone can make informed decisions about the horse they are choosing to ride and how they prioritise their care (correctly fitting saddle etc).
Fat shaming/ Judgement
The topic of this research has massive potential to nurture segregation, judgement and dehumanizing behaviour. It would be very easy to cast shame onto every rider perceived to be too heavy for their horse and every competitor and spectator turning into the ‘fat police’.
Whilst the horse’s welfare must remain paramount, it is still important to appeal to everyone’s humanity. The purpose of scientific investigation is to improve the way we do things. Once we know better, we can do better.
What you can Do
Keep your side of the street clean
I believe that this bold and necessary research is a call to action. Every single rider has a responsibility to examine their self-awareness and assess how they are approaching the duty of care for their horse.
The knowledge that how we show up on the back of a horse can cause them discomfort is something we all know, but it is a tap on the shoulder for every single rider to get real about what they are doing.
The most important ingredient to the success of this information I believe is going to be every rider taking responsibility for their own self-awareness. Having a strong, valid, realistic view of what you are asking your horse to do for you is key and if you are not sure that things are as they should be, ask someone you trust for their feedback.
This exploration, I hope, will evolve further so that there can be some guidelines on optimum rider:horse bodyweight ratios. This will give everyone access to the facts that can help inform their decisions.
How is it going to work? I don’t know. I can only hope that it creates worthwhile discussion, support and continued improvement for the welfare of our horses.
As a professional equine sports therapist, I have been involved with the riding journeys of hundreds of riders in countries across the world for over a decade.
In my experience, most riders I have had the pleasure of working with, are consistently trying to mitigate any issues that may cause discomfort in their horses.
This topic is only just beginning to be unraveled, but I believe the success will lie in compassionate honesty, education, factual guidelines and riders taking full responsibility for how they are showing up for their horse.